by Spencer Hayes
A sparrowfart of a man waits by the curb at the corner of Cottman and Frankford. He wears the Spartan army-navy surplus of yesteryear. On his back: a rucksack. He’s a pale face among pale faces. It’s overcast. A cold wind cuts down the street. His balls retract into his gut. He breathes exhaust.
Above the slipstream of cars appears a bus with a neon orange sign. It reads 66 Frankford Transportation Ctr. The bus stops, kneels. Pneumatic hiss. The man feeds his bills into the token box. Enough for one way. The driver looks like he’s been shuttling souls to Hades. Brown coffee-drinker’s teeth. Sweat-soaked uniform. The man hopes the bus doesn’t crash before he gets where he’s going.
The man looks for a seat. Finds one. He slips off his rucksack, places it on his lap, and wraps his arms around it. Passengers pretend not to see one another. They imagine themselves alone, away from the strip malls and gun stores and beer distributors. The bus dips. A pothole. Grinding steel.
Before a plexiglass barrier are a mother and two children—a boy and
girl. They’re bundled like North Pole explorers. Their noses are wet and
red. They spelunk under their seats. They use their fingernails to scrape
The girl points at the man. Veins knot in his head, ready to burst. He tightens his hold on pack’s nylon straps. The mother slaps the girl’s finger. The girl meows. The mother smiles apologetically. The man tugs his coral lips into a line and shrugs. His heartbeat normalizes. The street slopes down. The man checks. No one is watching. He maneuvers the rucksack off his lap and stows it between a seat and the exterior wall. Rehearsed. He spit-smoothes a cowlick. He pulls the cord. Ding. The bus stops. The doors flop open. Down the backstairs. The doors close. The bus motors off, throws soot into the air.
The man ducks into an alley and caresses the detonator one last time. Then the bus tears apart. Heat. Light. Concussive air. The frame folds in on itself like metal origami. Storefronts explode. Nails and screws pepper the crowd. Fire the color or Hindu flames—sacred reds and yellows—melt tires and char remains. The ground rumbles.
Air rushes back and fills the vacuum. Howls. Shattering. Honking. Shouts. Moans like Vedic prayers. Sirens. A black plume towers over the city. Blood-blinded survivors grope for loved ones and strangers indiscriminately. The man brushes debris from his hair, removes his earplugs, and draws himself into a standing position. It’s time to lend a hand.